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Describing an artist’s sound as “unique” isn’t necessarily a compliment. “Unique” doesn’t always equal “good.” As musicians try to distinguish themselves from the thousands and thousands out there, they can become so obsessed with sounding different that they forget that good music, at the end of day, is about good songs. The sound needs to serve the music, rather than the other way around. This constant quest for differentiation can result in music that seems forced and unnatural. Sleigh Bells, in my opinion, are a good example of this: their first album just seemed so calculated to be alternative. (Fortunately their latest gets the mix right.)
Then there’s Andrew Bird who manages to be unique in an organic, non-contrived way. Odd natural elements just come together: his use of violin as main instrument; the variety of sounds he produces from it (often in the same tune using loops) from delicate plucking to mandolin-like strumming to bird-like runs and trills; his expressive, yearning voice; his dense, hyper-literate lyrics; the underlying and subdued rhythm that accompanies almost every song; and last, but most definitely not least, his masterly whistling. As with a lot of the music I like, I’m not even quite sure how to describe it – “alternative folk” perhaps – but then who cares? Music this interesting doesn’t need to be slotted and categorized.
His latest album finds him in slightly quieter territory than 2009’s excellent Noble Beast (which made my best albums of the oughties list). The lyrics are more concise and straightforward, but he brings the same broad palette to the table. You get an earful of his sound on the opening track, “Desperation Breeds.” It starts with a sudden, jarring chord (I almost thought there was a technical problem), then the chiming of a plucked violin while background voices mutter murky phrases in a descending minor key, like quiet church chanting, then a fingerpicked acoustic guitar as Bird sweetly sings about “This era without bees,” and his violin trills and swells in the background as a rhythm slowly builds from his looped violin and guitar parts. It’s a tour de force and a precursor of what’s to come.
Bird often uses his violin in a percussive way, establishing a basic plucked “riff” (it seems odd to use the word riff for a violin part!) that’s then echoed by guitar. “Give It Away” is a terrific example of this, as well as being a great melodic folk-rock song. “Near Death Experience Experience” is similar with a slinky rhythm and Bird’s always intriguing whistling. His whistling is so precise that it can occasionally sound electronic, and therefore quite eerie (almost like a Theremin), as it does at the beginning of this song. The beginning of “Lusitania” also features his trademark crystal clear whistling, albeit without any sense that an alien has taken over. This acoustic strummer also features Annie Clark (St. Vincent), singing in an almost unrecognizable voice, free over her normal swoops and “whispers to screams.”
“Eyeoneye” is another standout with a completely different feel from the folkier offerings. It’s driven by a rapidly strummed, accelerating electric guitar and a wonderful catchy chorus – and features his trademark crystal clear whistling. I also love the quiet, sad “Sifters” featuring a swelling guitar and processed violin. And Bird introduces a new sounds to his violin repertoire, an Appalachia-like flavor on “Danse Caribe” and “Orpheo Looks Back.”
This is exceptional subtle and well-executed record, one I expect to listen to a lot in the coming years!